The Olympic games, which were perceived during the cold war as a bourgeois pastime, are hailed as a democratic competition where merit is awarded on performance. But, there is still no question that there is a significant correlation between a country’s political standing and the number of medals it wins at the Olympics. These games have become a branding effort on behalf of the world’s powers and the countries trying to become one of them.
To illustrate my point, take a look at these two lists:
Imagine, what would happen if in 2016 the USA would loose its position as one of the top 3 countries? What if China would lead with most gold medals followed by Germany and Brazil while Vietnam, whose growing economy is making news, started to build a substantial repertoire of medals?
What impact would it have on tourism and business development if countries like Colombia and Peru started showing up on the tally screen for taking a substantial number of medals in high visibility sports?
Would this influence journalists, investors, economists, or politicians? Would it affect the public’s perspective?
Of course it would.
It is the countries that see this event as a branding opportunity and have the means to do something about it that continue to win. They spend considerable time, effort and budget in order to play a role in this stage. By doing so, they are investing in something whose only ROI is the public’s perception of their country, a reinforcement of their power.
It’s not necessarily wealthy countries that win more medals; it is those that care about public image. Case in point: North Korea. While the majority of the population is in a state of starvation, they have acquired 5 medals (4 of which are in weightlifting), scoring above more economically and politically stable countries such as Brazil and Norway. The North Korean government is famous for its Stalinist-like propaganda; it’s a country that understands the power of branding. According to a recent NY Times article, after lifting three times his body weight, gold medalist Om-Yun Chon states that this feat was possible due to the “warm love and consideration of General Kim Jong-il and comrade Kim Jong-un.” Successful or not, this is a country desperately trying to rebrand itself.
The Olympics can be looked at as an evaluation of a country’s power in terms of their strongest, most skilful citizens. Whether this is an accurate or logical measure, this message exists. It is true that, like companies, everything a country does builds on what it is. The Olympics are not just a time for showcasing sporting excellence; it is the moment in which countries reaffirm their position on the world pedestal.
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